Madden NFL 21 Review: What Happened to This Football Titan?

The mighty football franchise’s latest iteration lacks polish, with additions that are better in concept than execution.

Madden NFL 21 Review
Photo: Electronic Arts

Anyone who’s purchased any of the latest in EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise over the past 15 years has at least heard the yearly gripe from jaded fans: “You’re paying $60 for a roster update.”

That’s not the case with Madden NFL 21. This time, you’re paying $60 for a roster update, a whole mess of ugly typos and hiccups, and some interesting new additions which fulfill their promise about as well as Johnny Manziel.

Okay, maybe not quite as disappointing as Johnny Football. Regardless, this is the most underwhelming new installment of Madden since I began reviewing the franchise professionally seven years ago, and it’s in the running for the series’ lowest point in decades.

Again, Madden NFL 21 is more than just “the same game with rookies added.” The latest iteration includes a brand-new mode called The Yard, an arcade-style alternative to the more traditional sim that evokes a backyard football vibe. The Yard bears similarities to elements of the other EA Sports-released team sports titles the past few years, especially the occasionally-released NBA Live series’ The One as well as World of CHEL in the NHL franchise. Players create an avatar and customize it with a variety of officially licensed gear as well as a colorful wardrobe. EA promises new gear will drop regularly if you’re looking to keep your avatar fresh.

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As far as the gameplay goes, The Yard is, without a doubt, about as close as Madden has ever gotten to replicating the NFL Blitz arcade experience. It’s six-on-six, rather than 11 per side. First downs markers are 20 yards away instead of 10. You have the ability to throw multiple passes behind the line of scrimmage, with a smaller set of plays drawn up that look a lot closer to something you’d see in the late ‘90s arcade classic from Midway Games. One big twist: Bonus points are earned from interceptions and touchdowns scored under certain conditions. Plus, up to three extra points can be earned after TDs. Great way to avoid ties, for sure.

The Yard should be made for someone like me, an older millennial who dropped plenty of quarters into the arcade sports classics and loves those types of games even more than sims. And yet, there’s something missing. It’s not the fact that there are no late hits like in Blitz, but rather that you’re more or less still playing simulation football from a gameplay standpoint. On top of that, it just isn’t as charming as even the returning Superstar KO mode, which was introduced post-launch last year in Madden NFL 20. Sure, the aforementioned tweaks make it different enough from the norm to stand on its own, and I can see plenty of players really having fun with it and the gear-earning loop. But I’m just not feeling The Yard, and I worry you might not either.

After The Yard, the most noteworthy change from the previous Madden is a more intriguing Face of the Franchise (FOF) setup. FOF frames your character’s athletic career through an on-camera interview in your old high school gymnasium for a retrospective, a la NFL Network’s A Football Life. I beat the drum all the time for more enthralling career modes in sports games with more emphasis on storytelling, so the frequency of cutscenes and interactive moments with players, coaches, and media in FOF was a welcome sight. There’s even the option to switch to running back or wide receiver before turning pro this time around, instead of only pursuing a quarterback career.

Release Date: Aug. 28, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Football Sim

The problem with FOF isn’t the conception of this model; it’s the execution. After an interesting setup between your rival/friend Tommy Matthews, played by actor Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), that sees your character interact with him plenty throughout your high school season and two additional college years, he basically disappears. It’s implied that he’s elsewhere in the NFL, lighting up opposing defenses as a star quarterback. He even pops up briefly in text message interactions once or twice. But that’s about all you see or hear of Tommy, at least until the final cutscene if you reach the Hall of Fame. I can’t spoil what happens in this scene…because the audio went dead silent for it. I hoped it was just a little glitch that could be solved by restarting the game, but it didn’t work a second time either. Unless this particular glitch was addressed but not included in the Day 1 patch notes provided to reviewers midweek, I suggest you don’t push to finish Face of the Franchise until this ugly bug is squashed in a future patch.

The cutscene snafu underscores one of the most disappointing elements of Madden NFL 21, which is how rough its edges are. Look, these are unprecedented times we live in, as so many have said in 2020. It is entirely possible that the team at EA Tiburon had significant disruption to the regimented development cycle associated with an annual sports franchise. Crunch culture is a deplorable reality for many in the game development world and gamers ought to have more sympathy for the individuals who work insane hours to create an entertainment product. 

All that said, we ought to expect a certain level of polish from something Electronic Arts asks us to pay $60 for — ideally, for them, every single August — plus any microtransactions incurred in the process of filling out your Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) or getting elusive gear for your avatar. Is it so much to ask that the game spell Tennessee Titans star running back Derrick Henry’s first name with two “Rs” on his loading screen image? I actually had to Google him to make sure I hadn’t been spelling his name wrong for years. Typos and glitches like this could be found all over Madden NFL 21 during the seven days EA Access players and reviewers like me spent with the game ahead of official launch. That should not be acceptable for premium members, and it’s uncertain if all of the roughness will be polished out ahead of launch.

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Beyond those gripes, don’t expect Madden NFL 21 to play drastically differently than last year’s edition. Temper expectations for any major overhauls to Franchise, at least not on Day 1. EA promotes this game as a live service, with new content regularly being added as was the case with the aforementioned Superstar KO, but there’s no way to know what that will be and how appealing that will be to you, the consumer. As it stands, this is arguably the least exciting version of Madden to release since EA acquired the exclusive NFL licence 15 years ago.

But, hey, at least the rosters are up to date.


2.5 out of 5